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Mothers at Work Are Canaries in the Mine

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Working mothers may be shortchanged, off-balance and fun-deprived, but Charlotte Fishman says they are also at the forefront of another dynamic social movement. Too bad a recent front-page New York Times article missed that angle.

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Working mothers may be shortchanged, off-balance and fun-deprived, but Charlotte Fishman says they are also at the forefront of another dynamic social movement. Too bad a recent front-page New York Times article missed that angle.
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Charlotte Fishman

(WOMENSENEWS)--Elana Back was denied tenure as a school psychologist because her superiors "presumed that she, as a young mother, would not continue to demonstrate the necessary devotion to her job, and indeed that she could not maintain such devotion while at the same time being a good mother." She sued them.

In Back v. Hastings on Hudson Union Free School District, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York in 2004 held that stereotyping mothers is a form of gender discrimination.

So why are some young women at Yale still mouthing this pernicious stereotype-laden platitude on the Sept. 20 edition of The New York Times?

Yes, I'm talking about that story that The Times chose to run on its front page a few weeks ago in which young women at a top Ivy said they didn't think that devotion to work and children was truly possible.

At the end of his career, even the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist--not known for his staunch defense of women's rights--recognized the need to overcome stereotypes about women's domestic roles. He said such stereotypes perpetuate "a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that . . . fostered employers' stereotypical views about women's commitment to work and their value as employees."

So why are some young women at Yale so ready to throw in the towel before they even place their toes in the water?

Could it be because they've been watching what happens to women who choose careers in academia and other demanding jobs?


Shortchanged and Off-Balance

Mothers at work are canaries in the mine. Anyone watching a mother attempt to handle a demanding professional job is likely to be awed at the tremendous expenditure of energy that goes into creating some balance between the needs of family and the needs of work.

They are also likely to see how shortchanged the woman's own needs are, and how she is frequently sleep-deprived or exercise-deprived or fun-deprived.

No wonder some young women say, "I'll step off the train, thank you, once I have children."

Next Monday, Oct. 24, is Take Back Your Time Day, celebrating (ironically) the 65th anniversary of the enactment of the 40-hour work week.

One of the slogans--meant for workers of all kinds everywhere--is, "Medieval peasants worked less than you do."

It's this status quo, the one that makes it literally impossible for mothers to have careers without becoming sleep-deprived stress junkies, that prompts fantasies of escape to domestic life.

Thankfully, this "status quo" is anything but static.

There is an emerging social consensus that society cannot continue to absorb the social cost of parents working full time when "full time" is defined as 80 hours a week.


Forming New Type of Community

Increasingly, both men and women seek a world in which the spurious community of overwork yields to a genuine community supporting the common welfare. This community leaves time for school volunteerism, home-cooked meals and exercise, for nurturing friendships and following personal pursuits and for political participation.

This is not just for the professional elite. It's on the agenda of unions representing blue-collar workers as well. Recently, the Labor Project for Working Families published a family-friendly handbook, "A Job and a Life: Organizing and Bargaining for Work Family Issues."

We are in the middle of a major, dislocating social transformation.

Having fought and won the battle of the 1960s--equality of access to education and employment--and the battle the 1970s--legal protection against pregnancy discrimination--working women are at the forefront of another dynamic social movement, one that seeks work-family balance.

They are making headway. Large and influential employers nationwide, including the University of California, are experimenting with family-friendly policies to gain a competitive edge in the market for skilled workers.


Case of Professor Laurie Freeman

Which brings us to the case of Professor Laurie Freeman.

Freeman, a gifted political scientist at University of California, Santa Barbara with an impressive resume, was turned down for tenure when she first applied.

Before having children she received stellar reviews. Afterward, her department became increasingly critical of her research and productivity.

She was unable to convince the chancellor that "doubts" about her scholarly work were linked to the university's violations of its own policies, so she filed a novel charge of "sex plus" discrimination--the "plus" in this case being motherhood and parental leave--with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

On June 20, 2005, she was awarded tenure by the chancellor, retroactive to 2004. On Sept. 6, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a rare determination in her favor.

Freeman's personal struggle for tenure illustrates the continuing relevance of the mantra of the women's movement of the '60s: "The personal is political."

On the one hand, she was fortunate to be able to make use of "The UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge" initiative, a collection of policies designed to ensure that no faculty member would be disadvantaged by having a family as well as a career. These policies include guaranteed stop-the-tenure-clock leaves for male and female parents which were designed to lighten the publish-or-perish pressures on younger professors.

On the other hand, policies do not enforce themselves. Freeman fought a long and lonely battle to overcome the resulting backlash of unfavorable comparison with others who had not taken family leaves.

Disparate treatment of workers who take advantage of family-friendly policies is a problem. But when federal agencies and courts find discrimination in outdated stereotypes, we are well on our way to eliminating the culture of bias that prevents mothers from thriving at work.

It's exciting to struggle for a status quo that enlarges the possibilities for family life and civic life, community and work.

It's hard to see how a young woman would not be energized to join in, if she were made aware of what's happening. Wouldn't it be nice if she got to read about it on the front page of The New York Times?

Charlotte Fishman is executive director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women's advancement in the workplace. She is an employment attorney specializing in academic tenure discrimination and represented Laurie Freeman before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She can be reached at cfishman@sbcglobal.net.

For more information:

Take Back Your Time:
http://www.timeday.org

Labor Project for Working Families:
http://www.laborproject.org

Working Women Delay, Forego, Rethink Motherhood:
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1592

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